New Jersey Supreme Court Rules That Rap Lyrics Can’t Be Used To Prove Artist’s Intent To Commit Crime

New Jersey Supreme Court Rules That Rap Lyrics Can’t Be Used To Prove Artist’s Intent To Commit Crime

“Yo, look in my eyes. You can see death comin' quick. Look in my palms, you can see what I'm gunnin' with.” These were among the words read to a New Jersey jury during Vonte Skinner’s criminal trial stemming from a drug deal gone bad. During the trial, the State and Skinner agreed that Skinner had met with Lamont Peterson, that Peterson and Skinner worked together on the same “team” within a drug ring, and that Peterson (who survived) was shot multiple times at close range with a 9-millimeter gun that was never recovered. In issue, however, was whether Skinner, who admittedly fled the scene of the shooting, was the gunman.

As to that issue, the prosecution’s main evidence consisted of Peterson’s testimony and three notebooks of rap lyrics that Skinner had authored and then left in his car when he fled after the shooting. Many of the lyrics are written in the first person under the moniker "Real Threat." As the prosecution pointed out, Skinner had the word "Threat" tattooed on his arm. The prosecution read to the jury extensively from Skinner’s lyrics. The trial transcript of the reading, which was not interrupted at any point, ran for thirteen pages of twenty-five lines each.

The jury found Skinner guilty of attempted murder and aggravated assault. Skinner appealed, and  the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, reversed his convictions. State v. Skinner, 2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2069 (App.Div. Aug. 31, 2012). Following that decision, the State appealed.

On Aug. 4, 2014, the Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division, holding that Skinner was entitled to a new trial. State v. Skinner, 2014 N.J. LEXIS 803 (N.J. Aug. 4, 2014). Justice LaVecchia, writing for a unanimous court, held that the rap lyrics were highly prejudicial and bore little or no probative value as to Skinner’s motive or intent.   He noted that “probative evidence may not be found in an individual's artistic endeavors,” explaining that “one cannot presume that, simply because an author has chosen to write about certain topics, he or she has acted in accordance with those views. One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects. . . . The admission of defendant's inflammatory rap verses, a genre that certain members of society view as art and others view as distasteful and descriptive of a mean-spirited culture, risked poisoning the jury against defendant.”

In reaching that conclusion, Judge LaVecchia examined similar cases in other jurisdictions. He noted that courts have upheld admission of incriminating artistic endeavors when they exhibited an unmistakable factual connection to the charged crimes. See Greene v. Commonwealth, 197 S.W.3d 76, 86 (Ky. 2006) and Bryant v. State, 802 N.E.2d 486, 498 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004). Meanwhile courts have excluded such evidence in the absence of a strong nexus between the subject matter of the lyrics and the charged crimes. See Hannah v. State, 23 A.3d 192 (Md. 2011) and State v. Hanson, 731 P.2d 1140 (Wash. Ct. App. 1987).

According to an Aug. 9 PBS NewsHour article, Burlington County, New Jersey, prosecutor Robert Bernardi intends to retry Skinner for attempted murder. In a statement given to the NewsHour, Bernardi said: “We appreciate the Court’s direction going forward on the use of such lyrics. This decision provides guidance to all New Jersey prosecutors who contemplate the use of such evidence in the future.”

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